Wi-Fi will soon be on one-third of US mainline aircraft, but what about power? My colleague Fabio M. Zambelli (of setteB.IT, an Italian language tech site) wrote to remind me after my last item on the New York Times article on in-flight Internet that Virgin America has power plugs at every seat on every plane. True enough. I've flown VA a couple of times, and liked the experience a lot. There's Ethernet, USB, and a regular power outlet between every seat in coach (so two sets per three seats), and one set of the same in every first class seat.
VA has just 28 planes, or less than 1 percent of the domestic mainline fleet. How are other airlines equipping their planes, given 15 years of people toting laptops onto planes? And, now, with folks carrying smartphones that suck power but which can be driven by a trickle of USB energy?
It varies, that's for sure. I always make sure to consult SeatGuru, which has vast amounts of information about the configuration of every minor variant to every plane in service. The site's page on in-seat laptop power ports is a great starting point to figure out what seats to try for when booking a flight, and what extra gear you might need to plug in for planes that don't have standard outlets (which an increasing number do).
Depending on the aircraft, in-seat power may provide enough current and wattage to keep your battery from draining as fast, to keep it at a neutral setting (sometimes not charging the battery but powering the laptop directly), or to charge it when in use or in sleep mode. It's more likely you drain the battery very slowly than that the plane charges the battery, however.
When American Airlines started testing Aircell's Gogo last summer, I asked immediately about power, and the airline said that on the 767-200s in question, there was power at every first class and business class seat, and a scatter pattern throughout coach. I called up SeatGuru's page on the 767-200, and you can easily see which seats and rows you might want to try to get into in order to get a charge or trickle during flight.
American seems to have made an effort to get at least some power to coach in all its Boeing and Airbus models, but its smaller jets, like the Embraers, have no power anywhere in the planes.
By contrast, checking through Delta's fleet, it seems like quite a few models lack any power in coach, although some newer Boeing models have power at every seat in the front half of coach but not the back.
The whole point of Wi-Fi is to avoid pulling wire to every seat and having people mess with Ethernet, right? So the idea that airlines would now...pull wire to every seat with power attached, given the current state of the airline industry, seems pretty poor. Whenever possible a second battery is probably the best investment, and consulting SeatGuru the right plan if you need to work with or without an Internet signal.
(By the way, SeatGuru isn't an advertiser and didn't suggest I write about this. I just like the site.)